Sunday 30 October 2011

Vnam Café, Manchester

This is a small cafe on an unloved and unlovely stretch of Oldham Rd in the no-mans land between Manchester city centre and its suburbs. It's in a small parade of shops opposite the Wing Yip/Glamorous/Postal Depot behemoth. Very conveniently, there is limited parking in on-street bays directly outside.

It looks nothing from the outside and, speeding past in the car, if you even noticed it, you'd probably think it was a takeaway. If you managed a second glance, you might think it was a hairdressers or something. Inside, it's cheap laminate floors and basic, bare tables decorated only with chopsticks and paper napkins, but it's clean and there's a good smell coming from the downstairs kitchen, and, as I enter, the waiter leaps immediately up from the table where he's been chatting.

I'm no expert on Vietnamese food (in fact it's the first time I've had it in over 20 years), but the menu seems to tick most of the boxes I know, with spring rolls, summer rolls, pho, banh xeo, plus a strong line in barbecued meats. Just how authentic it is, I don't know, though I was the only caucasian in the whole time I was there.

The menu is very brief and not without repetition, in that most of the main courses are the starters with rice or noodles added. I rather like that. Both in terms of keeping buying to a minimum and produce fresh (vital in Vietnamese cuisine), and in terms of me always wanting to try at least one more starter.

The food had clean, fresh flavours, but perhaps lacked some of the fragrance I had expected, probably because there weren't the quantity and variety of herbs that I'd associate with Vietnamese cooking.

Summer Rolls (Goi Cuon) were filled with rice, prawns, noodles, carrot, cucumber, lettuce and coriander. They were certainly well filled, but the prawn element was a bit sparse, especially when I realised the prawns had been cut in half lengthways. Unfortunately they seemed to be missing a bit of the zing of flavour that I'd hoped for. But you can't really complain for £3. With the rolls came a dish of very moreish dipping sauce, that seemed to be a sort of combination of satay, fish sauce and chilli. Absolutely delicious, but it seemed out of synch with the summer rolls, which it dominated completely.

Bun Thit Nu'ong was some slivers of barbecued pork that had a nice level of char without being overcooked, on a mass of thin rice noodles that could have done with someone deciding whether they were meant to be hot or cold, as they were neither. On the side were some cucumber, carrot, spring onion, coriander and mint and fish sauce based dipping sauce.

Banh xeo (no picture: the camera battery died at this point) is described as a savoury pancake. It looks like an overcooked, thin egg yolk omelette, but has no eggs in it and is (I learned) a batter made with rice flour and turmeric that is shallow fried in oil. Here it comes filled with beansprouts, more of the halved prawns and pork, with the same salad and dipping sauce that came with the pork.
One disappointing thing was a clump of mint that still had an almighty chunk on inedible stem attached. Am I expecting too great a level of refinement in a basic caff?

Given the good value of the food (£3 for the the summer rolls, £5.50 each for the other two dishes), a small glass of lemonade for £1 seemed a bit dear! (They're unlicenced.)
Not perfect, but good value for £15. I wouldn't make a special journey (from north Lancashire), but would quite like to go back if I'm in the area.
Vnam Café on Urbanspoon

Albert's Shed, Manchester

Albert's Shed has a lovely canalside setting in the historic Castlefields area of Manchester. Inside, it's as impressive as the setting, with a good, buzzy feel. They have a number of large private dining areas and here I must state the major caveat: I was at Albert's Shed for a large private function with a set menu.

Everyone had pre-ordered, and knowing that this would be a full-scale banqueting meal, I'd selected dishes that I thought would not suffer from being held on the pass and might actually improve by being served up in quantity.  Service throughout was good, with the "who's having what" being efficiently managed, though it did rather remind some on my table of the Dad's Army episode where they have to buy fish and chips for the crew of a German U-Boot: "Also, aufpassen! Wer will Fisch?"  Except here it was "hands up whose having chicken" etc.

I'd picked mushrooms in a garlic cream sauce and lamb tagine from the menu. I didn't have any great expectations for the food given the circumstances, and they were entirely met.  The mushrooms were absolutely fine.  Utterly uninspired, but fine. Oyster and I think a few button mushrooms in a very garlicky cream sauce on a piece of toasted baguettish bread.

It was a bit of a surprise when the tagine came out to find that it wasn't a Moroccan inspired stew, but rather a whole lamb shank in a tomato sauce with more than a hint of ketchup to its flavour.  I don't know if it was bought-in and just reheated.  It was, however, remarkably consistent from plate to plate, which makes me suspicious. Really, if it wasn't bought-in, then it might as well have been. 

Apart from a decent camembert, the cheese was all the sorts of cheese with flavours and bits in that I don't like, but that's my taste.

It's curious, but there was nothing actively bad here.  It was a menu of limited ambition - rightly limited to what they knew they manage for the numbers. 

Looking at the menus on their website, the regular diner will find a menu of more interest, so do not rule it out on my experience on this occasion.  I'd like to say I'd like to go again and try it properly, but Castlefields is the other end of town to where I usually am in Manchester (indeed, this is the first time I've been down Castle Street), so it may be some time before I can get round to doing so.

Albert's Shed on Urbanspoon

Andrew Pern at The Freemasons

On 25th October 2011, Andrew Pern of the renowned Star at Harome in north east Yorkshire came over to the Ribble Valley to launch game week at the Freemasons at Wiswell, home for the last few years to the elevated cuisine of young chef Steve Smith, with a menu of game in the style of The Star at Harome.

I think the first thing to say is that this is not a review of The Freemasons at Wiswell, nor of the Star at Harome. (You can read my review of the Star at Harome by clicking here.) While they're far from uncommon, guest chef nights like this never show either the restaurant or the guesting chef at their best. It needs an incredibly strong kitchen brigade to adapt to a new boss for the night, cooking unfamiliar food, often in unfamiliar ways. Here, Andrew Pern was, I believe, on his own with the backup only of Steve Smith's brigade, none of his own.

For that reason, I'm often in two minds about such events. You don't see the best. You are not getting the experience of the guest chef's restaurant. Invariably, they're also always very slow to get started. On the one hand, this can be the result of the kitchen simply needing longer to get up to speed, but also, as kickoff approaches, there's schmoozing to be done.

Sadly, despite some excellent food, the most remarkable thing that lingers in the memory about this meal was the slowness of service. Billed as a 7 for 7.30 start, we were seated promptly, and were able to review the really good menu, which was - to be honest - what really attracted us to the evening, rather than it being Andrew Pern per se. Though it is, of course, an indicator of how attractive Pern's menus are.
£75 (wine-pairings another £30 for those not driving)

Canapés came out in several waves, with a complimentary glass of 2008 Juvé y Camps Rosé Cava, that was a little too like fizzy, watery Ribena for my taste.

The canapés were good, rather than great: the best were the shot glasses of "Bullshot" - a deeply flavoured  consommé with a real kick of presumably vodka. I couldn't quite work out whether it was a game consommé base or beef, as unfortunately I couldn't drink too much of it, due to driving.
Carpaccio of deer and mallard sausage roll
A carpaccio of deer and smoked trout with a fennel and apple remoulade was a really good combination, which I very much enjoyed, but it was marred by the over thick oat(?) biscuit on which it was served, which really did nothing apart from sap flavour from the venison and remoulade.  As these were seated canapés, it really didn't need anything to support it.  The mallard and mixed peel sausage rolls were tasty enough, but in the shadow of the carpaccio.

The starter was the punning "Salade Pérnigourdine" of Red-legged Partridge, Autumn Truffles and Locally Foraged Wild Mushrooms, Sticky Game Syrup

Salade Pérnigourdine
A generous portion, with both a breast and a confit (or at least well-roast) leg of partridge with a goodly number of chanterelles and a fried quails egg.  Although there was just one slice of truffle, its aroma was immediately noticeable when the plates were brought to the table, and unusually also carried a good flavour. The leg was lovely, with a good deep flavour. The breast on my plate was cooked distinctly rare, so much so that I think somebody had forgotten to turn it during the cooking process: the fillet was almost a bit of partridge sashimi.  Other plates had much better cooked (well, actually cooked) breasts, so this was obviously a kitchen error.  I seriously thought about sending it back, but a) I'm tough and b) we'd waited so long for this first course to arrive, I didn't want to risk delaying service still further.  Despite being so undercooked, I thought it was still a good flavour and overall I really enjoyed this dish: a clever combination and a clever name. And I say that as somebody who finds most puns severely groan-worthy.

Not sending my partridge back was clearly a good decision, as the delay for the next course was really far too long.  Even more surprising given that it was a dish that merely required plating, with no (further) cooking required.

Terrine of smoked pheasant, savoy cabbage and beetroot with walnut and quince dressing
The terrine was billed as Home Smoked Harome Shot Pheasant with Savoy Cabbage and Beetroot, Walnut and Quince Dressing.  The Savoy cabbage wasn't especially evident, in contrast to the two beetroots which I felt rather dominated the terrine.  Separating the pheasant out, it was nicely, gently cooked, very subtly smoked.  Unusually for a smoked bird, it greatly benefited from a bit of salt.  I think if the amount of beetroot had been halved, then this would have been a much better dish.  I have to admit that I didn't really get the "dressing" - pieces of quince and walnut do not make a dressing in my mind.

Yet another long wait for the next course, and again a rather puzzling delay, as it was essentially a soup, though, assuming it wasn't water-bathed,  the slice of pigeon breast in each demitasse would have to be cooked à la minute.

Chestnut and lentil soup 

The menu described this as Wood Pigeon, Chestnut and Lentil Broth with Sourdough Bread.  I really enjoyed this, though its billing with Wood Pigeon headlining rather disingenuously overestimated the importance of the pigeon in the dish.  It is also worth mentioning that the cutlery provided for this course was a small teaspoon: the slice of pigeon was just a bit big for a single mouthful.  I am increasingly irritated by chefs who do not properly consider how a dish is eaten at table by customers, though this was very far from the worst example of this sort of mismatch I've come across.
The pigeon was perfectly cooked, and very tender. The broth was utterly gorgeous: deeply flavoured with a rich, velvety texture, thankfully avoiding the grainy-floury texture that chestnuts can sometimes lend to dishes like this.

Now we really noticed the delay.  We had started at 7.30 and when we looked at our watches, we saw it was gone 10:20 and we were still waiting for main courses.  Fortunately in a rural setting like Wiswell (a tiny village in the Ribble Valley), nobody is reliant on public transport: in a more urban setting, I think a number of diners might have started to become rather nervous by this point.  I'm also not convinced that it's appropriate on a Tuesday night, when most people have to be at work in the morning.

Anyway, when it arrived, we got some beautiful venison, in less convincing company: Fallow Deer - Roast Saddle with Homemade Juniper Sausage, Wensleydale-creamed Cavolo Nero, Baked Plum 'Tatin', Green Ginger Wine Juices.  From the description alone, you can tell that this is not 'less is more' dish.

Saddle of fallow deer with juniper sausage

The venison was perfect, and while initially uncertain about the cabbage, I quickly grew to appreciate it in combination with the venison and the sauce. I didn't really detect much of the ginger wine in what seemed to me just a very good stock based sauce, but wasn't overly concerned by that. But the other two elements seriously let down the dish. The juniper "sausage" was a mousseline, presumably chicken, not overly-flavoured with juniper, though that may be down to mine being ... how shall we put this ... hmm ... a little over-browned? The plum tatin should have worked.  I'm not sure what the inverted commas around 'Tatin' on the menu were about: it was a tatin.  Unfortunately, it had been put in the sauce on the plate, and had been there for sufficently long enough before it came to the table, that it was a baked plum on a very sorry messy of soggy pastry.  If they'd left the pastry out, there'd be nothing to complain about, as the plum worked well.  Mine wasn't the only plate that went back with a lump of soggy dough on it.

Thankfully, things sped up a little now and at ten past eleven, dessert arrived and took us back to excellence.  I'm far from a fan of chocolate desserts (I find them a little heavy at the end of a meal) and whisky is not my drink, so wasn't particularly looking forward to Dark Chocolate and Famous Grouse Whisky Mousse, 'Singing' Johnnie' Sorbet, Hazelnut Peat.  But this was very well conceived and executed.  The whisky was in the form of a light jelly, the mousse just right, and the sorbet actually just a very good raspberry sorbet.  I asked what Singing Johnnies had to do with it, but nobody seemed to know.  The peat seemed to be a dark caramel hazelnut brittle, partly ground up, partly a shard on top: it added just the right note of texture without making the dish any heavier.

Coffee was the usual good coffee that the Freemasons produces, though I thought the accompanying pates de fruits could have been a little less set, and contrary to all expectations we actually managed to leave on the same day we arrived.

This was a meal with ups and downs, though the most serious down was the slowness of service.  I don't know whether that was the result of a problem in the kitchen, unfamiliarity of the kitchen brigade with the chef and the style of food, or not quite managing to pull off a banquet style service, or some other reason. I can't believe it was by design.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Product Recommendation: The Cumbrian Pig Company

There are two things you see too much of at farmers' markets in the north west: cupcakes and sausages.

Sausages have long been one of the things that butchers and other meat processors make to use up non-prime cuts that in the last 50 years or so have become much more difficult to sell. So it was naturally with the rise of farmers' markets and direct selling by farms that sausages would be one of the key products. They're also ideal for markets as they are both easy to hand out cooked and sliced to attract customers to your stall, and they make a pretty good impulse purchase. You might think twice about buying a large pork joint, but everybody has room in their fridge and stomach for sausages? They're like the sweeties supermarkets put by the tills.

The odd thing is that there are a lot of farms that seem to sell far more sausages than prime cuts. What happens to all the prime cuts?

The Cumbrian Pig Company is one that seems to deal mainly in sausages. But the difference is that these are extremely good sausages. Unlike many others, I've yet to come across any gristle or other nasty bits in their sausages, and their recipes are notably superior to most other producers I've tried: they always seem to me like tried and tested recipes, rather than some other producers, whose sausages "flavours" often seem to taste like something they knocked up the night before, hoping for the best, but able to rely on there being enough impulse buyers not to need to worry about how they taste. Some of the flavours are also rather interesting too. Whoever comes up with the recipes for Cumbrian Pig's sausages actually has a very good palate.

They have a range of varieties which they told me they rotate. I first came across Cumbrian Pig at the Cartmel Food Market (third Friday of the month) earlier this year, and so far there has been a different range each time I've come across them.

My most recent purchase was some Pork & Five Fruit Marmalade sausages. They were nicely, but not over-seasoned, with a good meaty texture and a very interesting flavour from the marmalade, which gave a nice agrodolce touch.

In the past I've Pork & Red Onion Marmalade, Pork & Damson, Pork and Rhubarb, and some others. Unlike some butchers who shall remain nameless, who have dozens of varieties which all taste them same (ok, yes, I'm talking about Cowman's in Clitheroe), all the Cumbrian Pig sausages I've had have been completely identifiably different.

Most recently, they also had some cured pork belly for sale. These were thick slices (not streaky bacon) which I just roasted as they were: bacon with crackling on! They would have made a good pancetta too.

See their website for contact details and where to buy.

I have no connection with them, and this post is made out of admiration of the product, not for gain.

Saturday 22 October 2011

Lunch at L'Enclume

L'Enclume is famous for its multi-course tasting menus, drawing on very locally sourced and foraged ingredients. They're not cheap, but they are always good value; they're multi-course but are never over-facing.

But sometimes I'm a little short of cash and/or time, which is when one of the less well-known features of this excellent restaurant come in handy: the set table d'hôte lunch at £25 for 3+1 courses (3 advertised, plus an amuse). And you still get the brilliant bread that has had London foodies' tongues wagging at the new sister restaurant, Roganic.

On this occasion, my amuse was a porcelain sack filled with a layer of (cucumber?) jelly, then a very light beetroot mousse, all topped with a buffalo mozzarella snow and some pretty powerful dill flowers.  Quite delicate, yet precise flavours, though I wasn't convinced by the texture of the mozzarella snow as it melted on the tongue to that not entirely pleasant mouthfeel that frozen cream has.

The starter proper was one of the best jerusalem artichoke dishes I've ever had.  A cream of Ragstone cheese, topped with malt formed the base for cylinders of jerusalem artichoke and some crisps made from the artichoke skin.  As ever, it looked beautiful.  Though immediately, there's a surprise: it's cold. I can't remember the last time I had cold jerusalem artichoke, and when it was put down on the table, I don't know why, but it looked like the artichoke component was hot, or at least warm! It was a really lovely dish with a perfect balance of flavours.  I can't help wondering what it would be like if, say, the skins had been hot. Would that add another dimension, or just spoil it?

Main course was a great piece of hogget (sheep over one year old), with various greenery stuff, including something called ground ivy. Cue slightly alarming moment: isnt' ivy poisonous?  No, not this one.  According to the usual internet sources of varying authority, it's a hedgerow plant, somehow related to mint that's been used in cheesemaking as an alternative to animal rennet and in brewing as an alternative to hops; though they say it's also poisonous to horses.  I'm still alive.  Another nice dish.

Dessert was one of those not overly sweet desserts that I particularly like and which L'Enclume does so well.  Wild blackberries, gently poached, served with a beetroot sorbet, beetroot meringue and an utterly dreamy buttermilk set custard.
L'Enclume on Urbanspoon

Wednesday 19 October 2011

Booths new store: Media City, Salford

I've always been a fan of Booths, the family-owned chain of grocers (ok, supermarkets if you must) based in Preston and with stores across the north-west (and a couple in Yorkshire too).  They have a firm policy of local sourcing and support Slow Food and smaller producers.  In their Lancaster branch, I once counted fourteen different Lancashire cheeses (not cheeses made in Lancashire, Lancashire cheeses). Remarkable.

So I was very pleased to get an invitation to the launch evening of their latest store at Media City in Salford.  I think this is their first venture into Manchester, and, besides the impressive set-up generally, it was interesting to see how Booths had adapted their range to what they see as the rather different market in a big city, and also that of the influx of media types, notably the numerous BBC employees who've been exiled up north.  In fact it seemed to me that the second largest group of people attending the launch evening were, to judge from their lanyards, BBC employees. The largest group of people there seemed to me to be all the "suits" from Booths themselves, who were largely hunting in packs, keeping together for safety.  It made me think they probably don't get out into the stores much to meet customers!

Indeed, the best thing I overheard all night was a Mr Booth asking another Mr Booth why he kept looking at his watch.  Mr Booth was simply wondering "how much longer I have to keep being nice to people"!

A string quartet from the BBC Philharmonic battled bravely against the general hubbub

The Media City branch of Booths has a very airy feel.  Look up and it feels a bit industrial, but keep your eyes at well, umm .. eye level, and it feels very modern and open, though not especially large.  It is, however, unusually for any sort of supermarket, on two floors.  I wonder how that will work: will customers really go up and down stairs (or the lift) to continue their shopping?


The produce on show was all extremely high quality, some even higher quality than I'm accustomed to in Booths, though of course it's entirely natural that they're out to impress. The display of various wild mushrooms in the greengrocery selection particularly caught my eye.  Ascrofts were offering some delicious tasters of a sort salad of golden beetroot and lentils that Booths should definitely think about selling ready made.

Some shelves (bakery notably) were still empty, which is entirely reasonable as the store wasn't opening until the next morning. It did make me laugh that some of the empty shelves had stocking plans on them marked "strictly confidential"!! Probably not a good idea to leave them out when you've invited hundreds of members of the public and press.

Butchery and fishmonger counters were very striking, though not especially large. Lots of beautiful looking fish and especially shellfish, with representatives from Neve's, the Fleetwood-based fishmongers on hand for this event. Thinking back to when Selfridges first opened in Manchester city centre, they too had an impressive fish counter, but that was very quickly cut back before disappearing entirely. It will be interesting to see if Booths can maintain the impressive range they had on show at this launch event.


The meats on display were just as impressive, if not more so.  Some beautiful looking National Trust beef, cornfed ducks and chicken from Reg Johnson of Goosnargh, salt marsh lamb, and most notably of all, some amazing-looking British rose veal, of which there were various cuts, all beautifully butchered.  Again, I really hope they can keep up these standards.  It would also be nice to see the veal being offered in other stores, as it's a meat that isn't at all easy to find, even in our excellent local butchers.

The meat and fish counters seemed a bit small, and clearly stocked with the premium end of their respective produce. I also thought the deli and cheese counters were also quite small, the cheese in particular feeling very cosmopolitan, and indeed Booths' cheese buyer confirmed to me that they had deliberately gone for the higher end here.

Mr Kirkham (of Mrs Kirkham's) behind the cheese counter

By contrast the 'ready meal' fridges seemed to occupy more space proportionately than in other Booths stores.  I don't know if that's really the case, though that's how it felt. Interestingly all these fridges have doors to keep down energy consumption, which can only be a good idea.

The BWS (beers, wines, spirits) section is upstairs and definitely felt both larger and more spacious than in many other branches, though interestingly did not seem to have the same really premium wines and champagnes that I've seen in, e.g. the Windermere store, in the past.

The worst thing was actually finding the place.  Not a problem if you work at Media City, but until Google Maps and satnavs get updated, it's not obvious. In particular, once you've found it, finding a way into the Booths car park is far from obvious, as it seems protected by more no-entry signs than is surely necessary!

Tuesday 18 October 2011

Ten Mile Menu at Parkers Arms, Newton in Bowland

The Parkers Arms at Newton is a little gem.  A proper pub with a talented chef of (some sort of) French heritage.  Virtually everything is locally sourced - very locally for the most part.

At the moment, for mid-week lunches they are celebrating their sourcing policy with a daily changing prix fixe menu in the French tradition of  "le menu" - if you found this on a by-way in France, you'd come back saying things like "only in France." It's a three-course, no-choice menu, all produce sourced within ten miles, for £10.

I started with a "Dunsop Egg" - a scotch egg, made with a delicate mousseline of smoked trout from Dunsop Bridge, the geographic centre of the Kingdom, just down the road.
As you can see, the egg itself was just right and the trout worked well. On the side was some soused fennel and a remarkably good home made mayonnaise.

Main course was a ballotine of chicken from local suppliers of chicken to most of the top restaurants in the country, Reg Johnson of Goosnargh.
A beautiful creamy mash, properly cooked root veg. Good roast chicken flavours and a good chicken gravy.

Dessert (no photo) was crème brûlée (runny in the French style) with local damsons in the bottom.

Quite how they do this for a tenner is difficult to fathom, but clearly we need to make full use of it.  Must go back very soon!

Parkers Arms on Urbanspoon


Welcome to my new blog.

My main website, will continue as it is, bringing you wine tasting notes, fuller articles on wine and restaurant reviews.

The content of this blog will naturally develop over time, but I expect it will contain briefer, more immediate reports on all things food and wine.